After much research, Mariliis Kutsar decided the renowned Aberdeen-Angus would be the perfect fit for her farm in Estonia. Emily Ashworth speaks to her to hear about her journey in establishing this iconic breed in her part of the world.
Farming in her own right is something Mariliis Kutsar has been working towards for years.
And after multiple attempts at setting up on her own, she has finally managed to carve out the agricultural career she has always dreamed of, sparked by the discovery of Aberdeen-Angus cattle.
In the village of Kalita, in an old Soviet barn lying just over four miles from the Latvian
border, Mariliis now runs 61 cattle across 115 hectares (284 acres) of land at Mäearu Farm, having been forced to reduce her herd numbers after severe drought in 2019.
Mariliis, 33, says: “I’ve been interested in farming, especially livestock, for as long as I can remember. My early childhood experience of living on a farm had a lasting effect on me. After buying the family farm in the 1990s it ended up failing, but my mum and brother attempted to make it work again in the following years.
“I thought of the things I could do differently if I had the opportunity. I was a farmer in my head all the time.”
Realising that to compete in her local market she would need to differentiate from the old and well-established herds in Estonia, Mariliis began researching beef cattle breeds.
Initially taken with Belted Galloways, she found it would be near impossible to earn a reasonable income raising them in Estonia.
“I liked them because I am interested in sustainable, extensive and organic production, and this breed seemed best suited for this type of farming,” she says.
“I then started to consider Aberdeen-Angus. With them being a world famous breed, there’s a lot of material available online. I was soon convinced that for my land and with the options I had, Aberdeen-Angus fitted the picture perfectly. There is so much information out there. I can look into different stock and based on EBVs and focus on which direction I could go in the future in terms of breeding.”
In 2016, Mariliis was almost set to buy her first animals from Scotland, but suffered a financial blow when the bank declined her loan application and the purchase fell through. But being ‘daring and young,’ she saw it as an opportunity.
By May 2017 she had gained fresh backing from the bank and contacted a new seller, Ranald Pottinger. She then made the decision to travel to Isauld Farm, Thurso, herself.
“I kept looking on the Aberdeen- Angus Society’s database and knew it would be worthwhile taking the journey myself. I contacted the farm and Ranald got back to me saying they had heifers to sell. I wanted 20 and although they weren’t sure whether they had that many, I decided to go at the beginning of June, even if they only had 15 animals to offer.
“I had to fly from Tallinn to Stockholm and from there on to Edinburgh, but I’m not sure I would have made it any further from the airport without my sister’s help – she lives in the UK. Left-hand side traffic is rather daunting, but I was so delighted when we arrived there. I imagined a similar herd strolling my pastures.”
It was not just about buying stock either, as Mariliis says the trip opened her eyes to what she saw as new and more productive methods of grassland management.
“Where I’m from, local farmers don’t use any fertiliser on most grasslands, it is only used for croplands,” she says. "I had a real pivotal ‘wow’ moment there.”
Mariliis landed back in Estonia with her herd in tow and despite fears of them falling ill in local conditions, the first calves have been born.
“Surprisingly, they have also learned their first Estonian word and come when I call ‘vissi, vissi’,” she says.
Currently selling her heifers mostly to Estonian farmers for breeding, she says she eventually hopes to compete at market.
“Some weaned bulls went to Turkey,” says Mariliis. It’s still the biggest export market for Estonian beef farmers. And as long as I have the chance to sell them, I send them every autumn.
“I joined the Grassfed Beef Quality Scheme and hope to sell some heifers that are not good for breeding through there in spring. Cull cows go to Latvia, Lithuania or Poland. It depends who is buying at the time, and I still sell breeding animals to farmers looking specifically for Aberdeen-Angus.
“This is most important for me, but it’s hard. It’s a small country with only 1,616 pure breed Aberdeen- Angus cows, so there’s not a big market for pedigree animals.”
Calving starts in February and cattle are out almost all year-round. This year, she also hopes to cross some of the Angus with some Wagyu.
They are fed silage, hay, straw, a little bit of grain and some vegetables too. She says: “I have to buy grain as we don’t grow any ourselves. I started to grow vegetables too, which I sell directly to consumers, and all that’s left goes to the cows.”
Farming alone from scratch, as a well as being a mother of one, has ultimately provided Mariliis with a thick skin and an ability to withstand failure.
“It is tough,” she says. In the last few years I have had to cope mostly on my own. When I decided to devote
myself to raising beef cattle, I had to be present at the farm full time and leave the city.
"By then I was expecting a baby, so I have been trying to build my business and be supermum at the same time. I don’t know how I have coped myself. You can’t leave animals without care, and even less so a child. It wasn’t rare that I cried my eyes out sitting in a tractor, but then just carried on trying to catch up with all the jobs.”
It is, as always with Mariliis, onwards and upwards from here, with plans to build herself a home onsite and gain a reputation for herself as a top breeder - But so far, the journey has been worth it.
“Buying a bunch of cows may not seem like anything to others, but all I have accomplished is from pure luck, good friends, family support and an immense desire to make a living from farming,” she says.
“I now feel I’ve done something that I didn’t even dare dream about five years ago. Even now when I go to the barn and look at those Scottish ladies, it makes me feel happy.
“I feel I have accomplished something and can smile about my success.”
Mariliis is worried about the situation and how it will affect trade, and considering how much time it has taken
her to farm, it is a blow to her business.
She says: “I know that livestock trading here will be in trouble - some export contracts already have been cancelled.
“I have heard some speculation that there will be no trade with Turkey in autumn. I don’t know if anyone has answer at the moment, but meat prices have already dropped and will probably fall more
“In this chaos I just think how to survive. I will probably reduce the herd rapidly, but I already have a small herd.
“I can’t even imagine how badly this will affect my company and I am scared. It will hit the sector very hard. It will hit everything hard all over the world.”